Golden Promos is a series in which I recount and comment on the best promos in wrestling history, from any time period and any promotion. Analysis will be of the content and context of each promo. They will be released bi-weekly on Sundays.
It’s December 1997.
Remember December 1997?
An episode of the TV series Pokémon named ‘Dennō Senshi Porygon’ was aired in Japan, inducing seizures in hundreds of children watching at home; it would later be banned. James Cameron‘s Titanic would premier in movie theatres, inducing millions of female tears and millions more male jeers throughout the world.
In wrestling, the British juggernaut known as Big Daddy passed away.
And on December 15th, Vince McMahon appeared on Monday Night RAW in a pre-recorded promo that in retrospect is one of the most important and telling to have ever occurred in wrestling history.
1997 has been remembered in general. Now, remember 1997 in wrestling?
The Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling was hot. Real hot.
In June of 1996 the company had overtaken it’s rival, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, in the Monday night rating battle between RAW and Nitro. Since then, the promotion hadn’t once been pegged back by the WWF. Fronted by the groundbreaking, incredibly cool New World Order faction and their biggest nemesis Sting, Nitro was the show to watch every Monday Night. And watch people did.
In comparison, the WWF was doing relatively well. Things had picked up since 1996, at least. But in a time when a renaissance wrestling period was underway, in which fan interest was becoming higher than ever, relatively well didn’t cut it. Being second best is not good enough when there are only two teams in the league.
Not only that, but WCW had just acquired from WWF their biggest star: Bret Hart. Not only was he their biggest star; he was one of only three left. The other two, Shawn Michaels and Undertaker, had no one who could draw money to work with. As such, they were working with each other.
The World Wrestling Federation was in trouble.
And so, Vince McMahon laid his cards on the table. He gambled. He stood in front of the camera and told everybody watching his show that things were going to change.
And change they would.
“It has been said that anything can happen here in the World Wrestling Federation, but now more than ever truer words have never been spoken. This is a conscious effort on our part to open the creative envelope so to speak in order to entertain you in a more contemporary manner.”
This promo is different. Everything about it breaks the conventional laws of a wrestling promo, and that’s because this is in fact not a wrestling promo. It is a promo on a wrestling show. Though this may sound the same, it is in fact very different; at least, it is where Vince McMahon is concerned, as he proves with each and every word.
Here, he openly addresses the audience; there may as well be a big wink through the camera at the end. While not unheard of, it’s unusual for someone not promoting a match while talking to an interviewer; even then, when a wrestler looks at a camera while promoting a match, it is with an implicit understanding between audience and performer that said wrestler is addressing his opponent.
Vince McMahon is talking to those watching. Because this isn’t a wrestling promo; it’s a marketing promo. The owner of WWF is stating explicitly that the television shows he is responsible for are about to undergo a change in order to make them more “creative” and more “contemporary.”
Basically, due to the threat of WCW, battle lines are being drawn.
“Even though we call ourselves sports entertainment because of the athleticism involved, the key word in that phrase is entertainment.”
How could you, McMahon?
Alright, alright, so kayfabe was dying at this point. After all, it was only weeks earlier that the Montreal Screwjob took place. Still, even this seemingly innocuous statement is a sentence of huge ramifications. While many remember ‘The Attitude Era’ as a period of excellent television that was always entertaining, it was not in fact a period during which great wrestling was paramount.
As a matter of fact, the general standard of wrestling on free television in 2013 far surpasses that of 1997-2000.
What Vince McMahon means by emphasising entertainment is that his television shows are about to undergo a transformation in which skits, sketches and characters aimed at exciting, amusing or disgusting audiences are the basis of programming.
And that, essentially, is what ‘The Attitude Era’ was.
“The WWF extends far beyond the strict confines of sports presentation into the wide open environment of broad based entertainment. We borrow from such programs niches like soap-operas, like “The Days of Our Lives”, or, music videos such as those on MTV, Daytime talk-shows like “Jerry Springer” and others, cartoons like “The King of The Hill” on FOX, Sitcoms like “Seinfeld”, and other widely accepted forms of television entertainment.”
Next week, on Jerry Springer: My Pensioner Girlfriend Gave Birth To A Hand!
The rating would be huge. It would involve Mark Henry, after all.
But let’s be Lance Storm for a moment. (Serious, for those that didn’t get that joke)
By comparing RAW and other WWF programming with soap operas, MTV music videos and sitcoms, Vince is essentially emphasising the comedy and drama over the wrestling once again. It obviously worked, since by actually bringing these elements into his wrestling shows they enjoyed far greater ratings than ever before or ever since.
And indeed, he wasn’t overstating the case. Music videos are easily comparable to the video packages WWF would begin producing at this point, some of which are still remembered today for their innovativeness, emotion or sheer entertainment value.
Ridiculous, soap opera-borrowed angles, like Triple H and Stephanie, compelled people in their millions to tune in to WWF programming every week.
And of course, don’t forget the segment that could be found on any sketch show on earth: This Is Your Life.
That earned a decent rating, didn’t it?
“We, in the WWF, think that you, the audience, are quite frankly, tired of having your intelligence insulted. We also think that you’re tired of the same old simplistic theory of ‘Good Guys vs. Bad Guys’. Surely the era of the super-hero urge you to ‘say your prayers and take your vitamins’ is definitely, passé.”
Boy, do the more obsessive wrestling fans like to throw these words into the face of Vince McMahon as they toil the internet forums for like-minded people eating Doritos in their underwear.
Good guys vs. bad guys is passé? Why, Vince, you say that like a man who has the biggest anti-hero in wrestling history waiting in the wings to make you a billionaire within the next two years.
This, of course, is also crucial.
None of these people fit the conventional idea of a good guy or bad guy. How could Stone Cold Steve Austin be a hero, when he drank beer by the gallons and gave a symbolic “f*ck you” to society every Monday Night? And how could Kurt Angle be a villain when he sought to inspire millions of people by emphasising the importance of integrity, intensity and intelligence?
“Therefore, we’ve embarked on a far more innovative and contemporary creative campaign, that is far more invigorating and extemporaneous than ever before.”
Vince McMahon is a billionaire. Of course he has an extensive vocabulary. Moving on.
“However, due to the live nature of “RAW” and the “WarZone”, we encourage some degree of parental discretion, as relates to the younger audience allowed to stay up late. Other WWF programs on USA, such as ‘The Saturday Morning LiveWire’, and ‘Sunday Morning Superstars’, where there’s a 40% increase in the younger audience obviously, however, need no such discretion.”
Saturday Morning LiveWire would eventually become a recap show that lasted until 2001. Sunday Morning Superstars lasted the same amount of time. It’s surprising to find they survived at all, given that the WWF increasingly targeted the 18-35 demographic.
That’s not to say young children didn’t watch WWF during the Attitude Era. They did, in their droves. They just did it without permission. Because over the next few years, WWF would not become recommended viewing for impressionable youths.
“We are responsible television producers who work hard to bring you this outrageous, wacky, wonderful world known as the WWF. Through some 50 years the World Wrestling Federation has been an entertainment mainstay here in North America, and all over the world. One of the reasons for that longevity is: as the times have changed, so have we.”
And that last sentence, essentially, is why WWF won the Monday Night Wars. Few acknowledge the constant reinvention of the Attitude Era. They see it as this fixed period of time in which WWF prospered but nothing changed. That’s not true at all. Certain things remained the same, certainly; but the show involved new stars as time passed, as well as different types of storylines.
Stone Cold Steve Austin was absent for 10 months in 2000, don’t forget; therefore, WWF had to compensate for that. They did, too, with The Rock, Triple H, and an undercard of Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit. And also the tag teams. And Lita, Stephanie and Trish.
Also The Undertaker became a biker….
“I’m happy to say that this new vibrate, creative direction has resulted in a huge increase in television viewership, for which we thank the USA Network and TSN for allowing us to have the creative freedom. But most especially, we would like to thank you, for watching. RAW and the WarZone are definitely the cure for the common show.”
To say WWF became a “cure” for common television is to understate just what it became. It became a phenomenon; an intrinsic part of popular culture that has given it a monopoly over its entire industry today, even when it isn’t flourishing with a casual audience like it did during ‘The Attitude Era’.
This edition of Golden Promos is a unique one, because Vince McMahon does not in fact cut a promo pertaining to wrestling.
Nonetheless, it is a promo, and a very interesting one to look back on and analyse. There are many watershed moments in what would come to be known as ‘The Attitude Era’.
The Curtain Call. Austin 3:16. Montreal. WrestleMania 13 & 14.
And then there’s this promo. A promo that will always remain a huge part of WWF history.
Now somebody get me a damn beer.